Take this as a lesson that the best nights don’t immediately reveal themselves. Lounge-country act Lambchop’s Lincoln Hall debut started with solitary confusion but ended with an uplifting communal feel.
The April 24 show was supposed to start at 8:00 p.m. (and if you can’t trust the emails and handwritten signs at the venue, who can you trust?) but as the clock changed a single person stood in the general admission area of the space as a full balcony looked on. Twenty minutes and just as many people later, a lone figure in a bowler hat took the stage. At first, he pried odd warm up sounds from his lap guitar. Then he kept going…and going. Was this a song or just an extended tuning session? The first period of noisy guitar scrape may have been a composition, but the crowd didn’t treat it like one. For the full half hour, this single song was all wordless sonics and negative space.
It would be lazy (if not inaccurate) to call it experimentation—the man who was later introduced by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner as Darin Gray knew exactly what he was doing (someone without a clue wouldn’t have fit repeated patterns of low, distorted blasts into the arty clatter). Call it minimalist classical, and its composer stuck a variety of small instruments on top of, underneath or next to his guitar strings. Was it self-indulgence or Cage-meets-Kaufman brilliance? Let the debate rage on.
For a far more traditional set, Lambchop played a two-sided show of 18 songs. The first half was a reverent tribute, the second looser and funnier, with good liquor and old friends. The set was heavy on ballads from its latest album, the superb Mr. M, but chestnuts from the band’s younger days courted the lifers out there.
If you don’t know Wagner, he’s about 53 years old and looks a little like Dale from “King of the Hill” relocated to “Portlandia” with his square baseball cap, white dress shirt and greying soul patch.
But age isn’t a concern of Wagner’s, as he plays like it never happened (the songs demand it). Foreshadowed by the scratchy big band records dominating the pre-show playlist, the cosmic croonerisms of Lambchop’s songs recall a time when music was made for adults at dinner parties, yet they offer countless Twitter-friendly quotables. Besides, the age of the audience was as wide-ranging as the band’s sound, from shaggy-haired teens in cargo shorts to pleats-wearing accountant types and aging record geeks in faded hoodies.
An eerily calm organ opened the set, and nobody dared breathe for fear of drowning out the light ping of harmonics. Second song “If Not I’ll Just Die” boasted shimmering guitar, and Wagner poured his soul into it, singing the oft-quoted opening line (“Don’t know what the fuck they talk about”) with coy glee. “2B2” was anchored by pronounced bass, and when a bar glass shattered during the song’s bridge, the interruption that would have perturbed lesser performers just made Wagner chuckle.
The band (sans bassist Matthew Swanson) sat for the entire performance, giving the venue the feel of a divey cocktail joint. On “The Good Life (is Wasted),” the loping Western shuffle kept the stern momentum going as Wagner only spoke in tune to himself. The singer kept banter out of the picture for the first half of the set—and with lyrics so arrestingly conversational, it would be silly to complain. “Kind Of,” a particularly effective Mr. M ballad, proved an unsurprising show highlight (“it’s not how much you make/But what you earn” might be the line of the year).
Wagner’s only communication came in the form of playfully shooting the audience a glance at the last beat of that song, the giggles sounding relieved after the solemn stage presence.
He broke his silence a full 11 songs in with a warm “thank you” and band introductions. A dirty joke from jocular pianist Tony Crow and a special visit from original member Deanna Vargona underscored the suddenly alleviated mood. Wagner good-naturedly chided Vargona for bringing her purse onstage, although he couldn’t say anything of the martini that accompanied it (he had one himself nearby). He introduced “Interrupted,” a song from 1998’s What Another Man Spills, as not having been played “since we did the Metro with Yo La Tengo a long time ago.” To the resulting applause, he jokingly shot back “Shut up, you guys weren’t even born.” His perception of the crowd’s median age might have been the reason for the strong presence of Mr. M songs, but it’s not like the album can’t stand its ground.
The new songs were brought to life in the concert setting, solidifying that Mr. M is to April what The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea was to March: an initially underwhelming work by a Merge mastermind-as-band that takes a live set to really appreciate—and once you do, there’s no going back. In black dress and matching evening gloves, Vargona’s ethereal backing vocals provided a ghostly complement to Wagner’s earthy delivery. Even when put on the spot for golden oldie “The Man Who Loved Beer,” she did fine peering over at Wagner’s lips for a real time refresher in lyrics.
The light moments didn’t stop with Vargona. During the evocative “Gone Tomorrow,” Wagner’s feet bounced on the ground, giving him the whimsical appearance of a marionette. Crow led a 30-second ditty dedicated to Joe Puglio, the band’s merch guy. And lyrics like “I remember your girlfriend/When you used to have a girlfriend” and “If I gave a crap/That’d show you where my head is at” elicited laughs from the crowd.
With a set like that, what do you do for an encore? How about two covers, written by Brian Wilson (Mr. M bonus track “Guess I’m Dumb”) and Bob Dylan (“I Threw It All Away”)?
And with a final martini sip, glass raised to the faces beyond the stage, Wagner was gone. Forgotten? That’s less likely to happen.
Lambchop at Lincoln Hall on April 24, 2012, setlist:
- “Give It”
- “If Not I’ll Just Die”
- “The Good Life (Is Wasted)”
- “Kind Of”
- “Gone Tomorrow”
- “Mr. Met”
- “Nice Without Mercy”
- “Never My Love”
- “My Blue Wave”
- “The Man Who Loved Beer”*
- “Joe Pulio Song”
- “Soaky in the Pooper”
- “Guess I’m Dumb” (Brian Wilson cover, originally performed by Glen Campbell)
- “I Threw It All Away” (Bob Dylan cover)
*with Deanna Vargona